Sunday, September 6, 2015

Cheat sheet for Hou Hsiao-Hsien's 'The Assassin'

Hou Hsiao-Hsien's 'The Assassin' is a beautifully filmed movie but its plot is opaque to anyone without a thorough knowledge of Tang history.

Here is a chronological cheat sheet that may help others understand the plot better than I did. It is largely based on the Chinese Wikipedia page (Cike Nie Yinniang) for the movie.

The names of the main characters are in bold.

Yinniang (lit. 'Hidden Woman') is the eponymous heroine. Her role is played by Taiwanese actress Shu Qi. The plot is based on a short piece of historical fiction by the late Tang writer Pei Xing (c.825-880).

General historical background

  • 618–907. Tang Dynasty.

    China’s most cosmopolitan dynasty that served as model for Japan. The Tang Capital was in Xi’an (then known as Chang’an).

    Sprawling over 4-5 million sq. km, the Tang ruled a multi-ethnic empire with a population that eventually reached 80 million.

    By way of comparison, Charlemagne’s roughly contemporaneous Carolingian empire ruled over 1.1 million sq. km and had a population of 10-20 million.

     In addition to the Chinese title of ‘Son of Heaven’ (tianzi), the early Tang emperors also had the title of ‘Heavenly Khagan’ (tiankehan, Khan of Khans ).
  •  755–763. Anlushan rebellion. Turkish-Sogdian Tang general Anlushan rebels against the Tang and establishes a rival dynasty centered in Henan and Hebei.

    Background to movie (No plot spoilers. This is what you need to know to follow the plot)
  •  The Tang Crown Prince Li Yu (later the Daizong Emperor) sends his tenth daughter Princess Jiacheng and her twin sister to a Taoist nunnery for safety.

    Princess Jiacheng returns to the court after the Anlushan rebellion ends, but the twin sister remains at the nunnery, where she becomes the leader of an order of female assassins loyal to the Tang.

    The Taoist assassins hold that the killing of disloyal tyrants is justified to to save thousands from tyranny.
  • 763 The Daizong Emperor (r. 762-779) appoints warlord Tian Jisi as military governor of Weibo (modern Hebei).

    In reality, Weibo is an independent kingdom that poses a serious military threat to the Tang.

    Weibo’s ruling class is a complex ethnic mix of Turkic, Sogdian, and Han clans bound by marriage, the need for mutual protection, and the ultimate goal of perhaps seizing power from the Tang one day.

    The lords of Weibo and the neighboring fiefs were generals in Anlushan’s armies.

  • 778. Tian Jisi dies and names his nephew Tian Yu his successor to rule Weibo.

  • 784. Tian Jisi’s son Tian Xu murders Tian Yu, Tian Yu’s wife and mother, and 20 other family members.

    Tian Xu seizes power in Weibo.
  • 785. Emperor Daizong marries his tenth daughter the Princess Jiacheng to Tian Xu to secure peace with Weibo.
  • 786? Princess Jiacheng adopts Tian Ji’an, Tian Xu’s son by a concubine and raises him as her own.
  • 791? Yinniang is born.

    She is the daughter of Princess Jiacheng’s lady in waiting Lady Nie-Tian.

    Lady Nie-Tian is Tian Ji-an’s paternal aunt and is married to Nie Feng, Weibo’s chief military officer.

    Yinniang and Tian Ji-an are childhood playmates.

  • 796? On Tian Ji-an's 15th birthday, Princess Jiacheng gives two jade disks to Tian Ji-an and Yinniang Tian Ji-an's coming of age ceremony.

    The jade disks mark symbolize the marriage between Tian Ji-an and Yinniang that Princess Jiacheng is arranging.

  • General Yuan Yi of neighboring Mingzhou pledges 10,000 troops to Weibo.

    To cement the nascent military alliance with the Yuan clan, Tian Xu breaks the betrothal between Tian Ji-an and Yinniang and marries his son to Yuan Yi’s daughter Lady Tian-Yuan.

  • Yinniang is sent to the Taoist nunnery at the age of ten to live under the protection of Princess Jiacheng’s twin sister.

    There she trains as an assassin for 13 years.

    Tian Xu and Princess Jiacheng are dead. Tian Ji-an has succeeded his father.

 ***Movie plot spoiler: read anyway or you will not understand what is going on.**

  • Yinniang returns home with orders to assassinate Tian Ji-an.

  • Yinniang fails to assassinate Tian Ji-an after she sees him with his children.

  • Yinniang leaves her jade disk in the chambers of Tian Ji-an’s concubine Hu as a message to Tian Ji-an that she intends to kill him and that she has renounced their ties of marriage and kinship.

  • Tian Ji-an’s principle military adviser Tian Xing (Yinniang’s maternal uncle) advisesTian Ji-an to maintain peace with the Tang.

    Tian Ji-an flies into a rage and exiles Tian Xing to Linqing.

    Tian Xing suffers a stroke.

    Yinniang’s father Nie Feng is ordered to take Tian Xing to Linqing.

  • Nie Feng and Tian Xing are ambushed on the way to Linqing.
  • Lady Tian-Yuan (Tang Ji-an’s principal wife, AKA Jing-jing), who is also a trained assassin, participates in the ambush wearing a mask.

  • Xia Jing. Tian Ji'an's bodygaurd and a childhood playmate of Yinnian and Tian Ji'an.
  • Lady Tian Yuan/Jing Jing’s master is a Central Asian sorcerer known as Kong Kong (Emptiness). He casts spells on Concubine Hu who is pregnant with a heir who is a potential rival to Lady Tian Yuan’s sons.
  • Having saved her father and maternal uncle from the machinations of Lady Tian Yuan, Yinniang abandons her mission, rejects her assasin's creed of killing tyrants for the good of all, and renounces the aristocratic world of power she was born to for a better life among the common people on the frontiers.


  1. Thanks so much for clearing the plot up and giving a place to concretise my guesses and validating my assumptions by referring to the characters and plot of the movie directly. It's really difficult to find any English article over the internet that provides an in depth analysis of the events in the movie. I would love to know more about it! The political machinations behind the plots fascinates me! The wikipedia page on Tian Ji'an gave me a lot to chew on. These additional information makes me more eager to watch the movie again, now that I have some idea and knowledge of the basic background and setting of the story.

  2. I caught most of the core plot on first watch, but I must admit, the identity of the masked assassin did confuse. I wasn't sure if it was Jiaxin, (come to punish Yinniang for bailing on her charge,) or Lady Tian Yuan. Thanks for clearing that up.

    1. Snap. That's the bit I didn't get.
      Beautiful film without knowing anyway.

  3. Brilliant! Thanks a lot for this explanation Michael!

  4. Thanks. Most informativt. Didn't find out who the masked assassin was on my own.

  5. Thanks for this. I was so confused : )

  6. Thank you so much! That clears up the masked assassin plot point...

  7. What happened after Yinniang fought with the masked assassin (Lady Tian Yuan)? Does the broken mask on the ground imply that Lady Tian Yuan was killed by Yinniang? It appeared that Yinniang was also injured by Lady Tian Yuan. It is very confusing all the way to the end when Yinniang left with the exiled group.

  8. Very helpful in order to comprehend the who‘s who in the plot. Though the pictures are a great experience anyway, even without the details of the story, it is an additional benefit to know what‘s going on in detail. Thank you so much!

  9. This is a very useful aid to assist us lay people, but I would personally advise every one to simply watch the movie over and over again. I have watched it just twice so far, and with the help of some timely stops to look over certain scenes again, as well as the subtitles' text, I think I grasped pretty much everything that was explained here (except the idendity and motives of the masked woman...I wasn't sure about that).

    Anyway, my point is that I found myself so raptured by the breathtaking beauty of this movie that I think the best way to understand it better is simply to watch it again (and I insist: from the first to the second viewing I felt a huge difference already). And it's not just to relish the beautiful images's because once you understand what is going on and who is who and why they do what, you'll start to get the characters' motivations, all the restrained emotion will start to soak in, etc

  10. I love this movie, even though it is difficult at first to understand, I think I have most of it now, but someone please try to explain the fight with the masked lady, just not getting it, was the masked lady Lady Tian-Yuan, is lady tian-yuan Tian Ji-an wife, and what was the symbolism there, ???? not getting the sliced mask part????

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  13. The meeting of the Assassins is the pivotal point of the film. It represents the choice of future paths made by Yinniang. The masked assassin (Ji-an's wife, Tian-Yuan) represents herself as what she may have been. Once betrothed to Tian Ji-an, Yinniang would have been his wife had she not been sent her to the Princess-Nun Jiaxing, where she is trained as a Taoist Assassin. Whichever her path was to be, she would have become an assassin. In that sense, the confrontation in the silver birch woodland is a confrontation between her two selves. Her realisation of that fact during the fight, causes both protagonists (the struggling parts of herself) to disengage and go their separate ways. The broken mask indicates that she has discarded the assassin's way which leads to emptiness (i.e. the outcome of being subservient to Kong Kong).